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Pumping Up Productivity

Though economic indicators are headed in the right direction, many employees are increasingly beleaguered and less productive. Here are four key tactics one report identifies for turning that around.

Hiring may be up among American companies, but that doesn’t mean workers are feeling any less overwhelmed. Despite a steady drop in the unemployment rate, employees are actually feeling more overloaded, according to a recent survey by Los Angeles-based Kelton Research in collaboration with Santa Monica, Calif.-based Cornerstone OnDemand.

Conducted in the early fall of 2014, the State of Workplace Productivity survey found 68 percent of U.S. full-time employees suffering from work overload, up 14 percent from the previous year. More than half of the 2,000 workers surveyed said their work overload — where the amount of time needed to complete assignments on a daily basis outnumbers the hours in the day — had gotten worse over the preceding 12 months.

John Herath isn’t surprised by the finding. As partner and director of human resources for Cary, N.C.-based military recruiter Orion International, Herath says many employers had grown accustomed to doing more with less during the recession and don’t yet feel comfortable staffing up sufficiently to bring employees’ workloads down to a more reasonable level.

“As we’ve been emerging from the recession and adding resources, you’ll find pockets and gaps because employers are just not confident in the recovery,” says Herath. “Not enough permanent staff is being hired for the amount of workload . . . now being generated.”

The result is a workforce that feels far less productive than it would like. According to the 2014 Productivity in the Workplace Survey by Fellowes Brands, an Itasca, Ill.-based manufacturer of office supplies, 57 percent of office workers say the pressure to be productive is on the rise, yet just 54 percent of respondents describe their day as “very productive.”

While both surveys paint a bleak picture of how beleaguered and unproductive workers are feeling, employers aren’t about to take such a challenge lying down. Many are implementing strategies designed to bolster productivity by giving employees more control over their work schedules, environments and activities.

That’s good news for the 65 percent of human capital managers who cited “increasing workforce productivity” as one of their primary goals for 2015 in the HR Performance, Priorities, and Trends Survey conducted by the Houston-based American Productivity and Quality Center, in conjunction with Cognizant, a Teaneck, N.J.-based information-technology and business-process provider.

The State of Workplace Productivity survey report identifies a number of promising productivity boosters — including four key ones: providing greater flexibility, allowing workers to choose the kind of environment they want to work in, cutting back on the amount of time spent in meetings, and encouraging employees to improve their health and productivity through the use of wearable technology. Each of these is expanded on below.

1 Embracing Flexibility

Despite 2013’s highly-publicized ban on telecommuting by Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and other major employers, a growing number of companies are recognizing that employees often know best when it comes to determining where and when they are the most productive, according to Michael Housman, chief analytics officer for Cornerstone. And with 65 percent of State of Workplace Productivity survey respondents saying flexible work schedules increase their productivity, it’s no wonder many employers are allowing more workers to set their own work hours.

With the exception of a “few specialized teams” being held to more structured schedules, the majority of Cornerstone employees have no set hours and aren’t even required to report to the office every day. How much time an individual ultimately spends in the office is irrelevant, says Kim Cassady, senior director of talent, as long as the work gets done and employees are respectful of the policy.

As part of its six-year-old Connected Workplace initiative, Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc. encourages employees to “work in the way they can be most productive and contribute most effectively,” according to Cheryl Prahl, vice president of human resources. That includes a mix of flexible options, including part-time, job-sharing and “more remote, less-time-in-the-office” arrangements. According to Prahl, it’s not revolutionary; it’s simply “the way people work today.”

“When you think about going to work, you don’t think about going to work, you think about doing your work and how you get your job done on a day-to-day basis,” she says. 

Those team members who take advantage of such flexible arrangements rank higher in terms of engagement on the company’s annual Tell Dell pulse survey, says Prahl. They also tend to rank Dell as a “great place to work.” According to Prahl, that ties directly to productivity and retention, along with improved business and customer results.

At Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Financial Inc., an array of alternative work arrangements are available through the company’s Business-Based Flexibility Program, according to Maureen Corcoran, vice president of health, life and inclusion for the corporate human resources department. While flexible arrangements have been granted on an informal basis for three decades, the program was formalized in 1998, giving employees widespread access to a number of options, including flextime, telecommuting, compressed work weeks, part-time work, job-sharing or any combination thereof.

Employees who want to work an alternative arrangement make the case to their supervisor either in writing or verbally, depending on that specific supervisor’s preference. Ninety percent of the U.S. workforce sets its own start and end times, while 81 percent of the workforce works remotely at least once a month. Ten percent work a compressed work schedule (e.g., four 10-hour days, rather than five eight-hour days), while 4 percent work part-time. According to Corcoran, a “huge percentage” of workers cite the company’s alternative work arrangements as productivity boosters in its annual employee survey. What’s more, she adds, when you consider “the fact that arrangements are granted so frequently, obviously bosses aren’t finding them as impediments to productivity.”

2 Mixing Up the Environment

Dreams of inhabiting “the corner office” have gone by the wayside for many corporate-ladder climbers, as the open-office movement has permeated corporate America. An array of progressive and traditional companies have embraced the open-office concept, with Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express leading the charge.

Currently, 70 percent of U.S. employees work in offices with open floor plans, according to the International Facilities Management Association in Houston. But while some employees revel in the energy and chatter of an open office, others find it difficult to be productive in such a cacophonous environment. Recognition of this has led to some very vocal backlash. A recent Washington Post essay proclaimed that the “open-office trend is destroying the workplace,” while the Huffington Post advised that it’s “time to rethink open offices.”

According to the State of Workplace Productivity survey, 37 percent of respondents said enclosed offices foster the most productivity, followed by partitioned cubicles (23 percent). Just 19 percent cited open-office layouts as productivity catalysts. Employers aren’t about to chuck open offices entirely, however. As with work schedules, they are increasingly recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all work environment, and that a mix of closed offices and open work spaces may very well be the key to a more productive workplace.

“There are two kinds of people in the world — those who like to have that noise in the background and those for whom it’s a complete distraction,” says Herath. “You can’t just say, ‘This open floor space is going to be good for everybody because it’s more collaborative and everybody can hear what’s going on.’ “

Dell boasts a mix of project rooms and open spaces where employees can work in relative quiet or brainstorm and interact with their colleagues, respectively. Prahl likens the environment to a university campus where there’s “a place to do any kind of work you need to do.”

With 500 offices around the globe, Seattle-based real-estate services firm Colliers International boasts a “whole gamut” of office designs — from “traditional, conservative enclosed offices to more contemporary and open types of environments,” according to Mindy Geisser, head of people services. While she believes open offices foster more collaboration, Geisser recognizes the need to maintain traditional offices, too, particularly in Colliers’ industry, real estate.

That industry “is pretty traditional and an enclosed office is a sign of status,” says Geisser. “To walk in and say, ‘Blow up the walls; there will be no offices,’ that would actually create disruption, rather than enhance productivity.”

3 Reducing Time-Wasting Meetings

If there were a contest for biggest workplace time-waster, chances are good that unnecessary — or unnecessarily long — meetings would place near the top. While most workers would admit meetings are a “necessary evil,” they find it difficult to feel productive when their days regularly fill up with meetings, leaving less-than-sufficient time to complete their work assignments.

“If you ask employees what are the most annoying aspects of work, very high on the list are emails and meetings,” says Housman. “They are getting calendar invites and emails constantly, and it’s one of the things that’s driving that 14-percent increase over last year’s study.”

Dell went so far as to bring in a third-party external consultant to analyze its meeting effectiveness, according to Dane Parker, executive director of global facilities. There were no “earth-shaking recommendations,” he says, but Dell has adopted a “meet how and when you need to” philosophy to address this major productivity drain. As a result, employees have taken it upon themselves to be more respectful of their colleagues’ time.

“We haven’t had to put out an edict that says ‘Cut your meetings by 20 percent’ or ‘Don’t schedule meetings on Tuesdays,’ ” says Parker. “People on their own have become more purposeful about their interactions.”

At San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk Inc., HR has started recommending that meetings be scheduled for 50 minutes, rather than an hour, in an attempt to place a limit on time spent unnecessarily, says Jan Becker, senior vice president of human resources. With so much business taking place on the global stage, however, Autodesk has found it challenging to identify meeting times that work equally well for people in several different time zones — or continents.

This is another area in which flexible schedules, coupled with technology, can play a major role, according to Sharon O’Brien, vice president of EAP/work/life operations for Ceridian LifeWorks in Philadelphia. Granting employees the ability to set their own schedules gives them the ability to come in for an early-morning or late-night meeting, but then take some time during the day to attend to personal or family matters.

Colliers relies heavily on Skype and Microsoft LiveMeeting to facilitate long-distance meetings and reduce the need to travel, while still enabling face-to-face interaction. Meanwhile, Autodesk uses its own cloud-based A360 project-based collaboration tool to empower design- and engineering-centric project teams to work together virtually. Employees are able to communicate and access critical information and designs from their desktop computers and mobile devices, enabling them to reduce the number of face-to-face meetings and boost productivity.

“It’s a more relevant way for people to dialogue online when they are all working on a particular project,” says Becker.

4 Wearing Productivity

With a growing body of evidence pointing toward the unhealthiness of a sedentary lifestyle — leading the scientific community to coin the term “Sitting Disease” — a new trend has emerged that has employers providing FitBits, Jawbones and other wearable fitness-based technology to their workers. Such devices track an assortment of healthy behaviors, such as the number of steps taken, calories burned and quality of sleep achieved. According to O’Brien, these devices boost workplace productivity by encouraging employees to engage in healthier behaviors.

Employers have yet to embrace this particular productivity booster in large numbers. Just 12 percent of State of Workplace Productivity survey respondents say their employer provides them with wearable technology. That’s an enormous opportunity lost, says Housman, as 71 percent of wearable-tech users say it has helped them be more productive, according to the Cornerstone survey. With better health comes heightened energy and focus, he says — which, in turn, results in greater productivity. And these wearable devices create the desire to improve the former.

“There’s no question that, by monitoring your activity levels and caloric intake, you are naturally inclined to improve them. That results in a healthier workforce,” says Housman. “Employers recognize when their employees are healthier and happier, they are more engaged and more productive.”

One might expect employees to be concerned about the privacy of their personal-fitness information. However, nothing could be further from the truth, as eight in 10 full-time employees say they would be motivated to use company-provided wearable technology that allows their employer to track their health and wellness data, according to the State of Workplace Productivity survey. Oftentimes, that’s because employee use of such technology is tied to reduced health-insurance premiums, discounted gym memberships or workplace competitions.

In 2014, nearly 3,000 Autodesk employees from 36 countries participated in the Global Corporate Challenge, a 100-day competition to encourage physical activity, team-building and employee engagement. Using accelerometers to track their daily steps, teams of Autodesk employees competed against each other, as well as against teams from other companies, to see who could rack up the greatest number of steps walked. Participants received “virtual trophies” through the Global Corporate Challenge portal as they reached various milestones. According to Becker, such initiatives boost productivity by improving health and wellness.

According to Mark Bennett, director of HCM product strategy for Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle Corp., tying such devices to an overarching goal of greater fitness and productivity helps employees stay engaged with the program, rather than abandoning it after the initial excitement has worn off.

“Technology is often sold as a gadget, as a whiz-bang ‘here you go,’ and people are naturally attracted to bright shiny new objects,” says Bennett. “When employers make the device more relevant by helping employees see how it helps them feel more energetic and productive, it makes it more attractive to keep using it.”

Regardless of which productivity boosters an employer chooses to adopt, such initiatives are likely to only increase in popularity as millennials (born between 1980 and the early 2000s) continue to make up a greater percentage of the workforce.

“These digital natives, these younger generations, have a very different view of work and technology,” says Housman. “That’s going to push these trends even more in this direction, as you’re going to see more people working remotely, having flexible schedules and taking charge of their own productivity.”

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